Tony Watson wasn't the same pitcher in 2016 that he was the two previous seasons. His fastball velocity (93.2 mph) dipped for the second straight year and his changeup usage (24.7 percent) dwarfed his career mark (13.4 percent). The lefty's pinpoint control wavered - a 2.7 BB/9 was his highest since 2012 - and he allowed homers at a 1.7 HR/9 clip, well above his last two seasons of 0.6 HR/9 and 0.4 HR/9, respectively. The good news - and there is some - is that general manager Neal Huntington said Watson will enter 2017 as his clear stopper. The lefty saved 15 of 18 games after taking over for Mark Melancon in August, registering a 3.86 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, 19:5 K:BB in 23.1 innings. He also gave up six homers. Although Watson's days of elite peripheral statistics might be a thing of the past, he's the frontrunner for saves in Pittsburgh. Keep in mind, however, that he may eventually face competition from free-agent addition Dan Hudson.
Watson remains the Pirates' closer despite his recent struggles, GM Neal Huntington told SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio on Wednesday. "Watson has been one of the best performing relievers in baseball," Huntington said. "We're comfortable with him pitching in the ninth." This vote of confidence is encouraging, coming on the heels of Watson's five-run blowup Sunday -- he recorded just two outs. Overall, Watson has given up eight runs on eight hits with a 6:3 K:BB this spring. The lefty's skills slipped again last season, with his 4.37 FIP suggesting he overachieved to a significant extent with a 3.06 ERA, but the Pirates seem to be content at the back end for the time being given Watson's larger body of work. Daniel Hudson is believed to be next in line for save chances in Pittsburgh.
Watson allowed five runs on three hits and two walks Sunday. He retired only two batters, striking out one, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. "The overall execution (was lacking), and the balls were elevated," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Without having the consistency of keeping the ball down, it was a challenge for him." Watson enters 2017 as the undisputed closer with Pittsburgh, but he's followed up a mediocre showing as the team's closer late in 2016 with a shaky camp. In 4.3 innings, Watson has allowed eight runs on eight hits (16.62 ERA) with three walks and six strikeouts. The team would likely look to Daniel Hudson and Felipe Rivero should Watson's struggles carry over into the regular season.
The Pirates will monitor Watson's workload in spring training as he enters the season as the team's closer, DK Pittsburgh Sports reports. Manager Clint Hurdle is focused more on Watson's usage than his new ninth-inning role. The lefty has averaged a league-high 72 appearances over the last five seasons. "I've seen pitchers who may not be as mentally comfortable in some innings as others," Hurdle said. "I don't believe that's the case with Watson. I believe last year it was the volume of work that caught up to him. It just got to be a heavy load." Watson, who lost his recent arbitration case, will become a free agent following 2017. Accordingly, the potential trade candidate has plenty of incentive to pitch well this summer.
Watson lost his salary arbitration case against the Pirates, and he'll make $5.6 million this season instead of his requested $6 million, Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. Watson saved 15 games and posted a 3.06 ERA last year, taking over the closer role after Pittsburgh traded Mark Melancon. He's set to occupy the same role heading into 2017 and could wind up a productive fantasy value pick, though he falls a bit short with strikeouts compared to most stoppers. Daniel Hudson and Felipe Rivero may earn consideration for save opportunities if he struggles.
The Pirates and Watson were unable to reach agreement over a new contract prior to the Friday deadline and will head to arbitration, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. Watson, who will become a free agent following the 2017 season, was reportedly offered only a one-year deal. It's apparent that the southpaw's time in Pittsburgh is dwindling and it wouldn't be surprising to see the team's current closer traded. Teams such as the Mariners have inquired as to his availability. Felipe Rivero and Juan Nicasio would become candidates for saves in the event Watson is dealt.